History/GWS 249 Reading Guide


Jewish Immigrant Women

  • Sonya Michel, “Mothers and Daughters in American Jewish Literature: The Rotted Cord,” in Elizabeth Koltun, The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives (1976). (e-reserve)

Text:

  • Kim Chernin, In My Mother’s House: A Memoir (Anniversary edition 2003; originally published 1983 as In My Mother’s House:  A Daughter’s Story; reprinted 1994), Part I: “Wasn’t I Once Also a Daughter?”
    Note: if you read the 1994 edition, read the Foreword after you finish the book; in the 2003 edition, the 1994 Foreword has moved to the end of the book to become the new Epilogue.

Questions:

  • Sonya Michel locates the sources for the literary themes of intergenerational conflict and the desire for reconciliation that recur in Jewish women’s fiction and memoirs in historical context:  Eastern European shtetl culture, lower East Side immigrant communities, and the communities that second and third generations built out of that heritage and their own vision of their future.
  • Why the focus on Jewish mothers?  Is the stereotype more accurately linked to Jewish grandmothers (the second generation)?
  • Kim Chernin offers a story about Russian Jewish immigrant heritage and culture and the extent and limits of American acculturation for the first, second, and third generations, that in this particular story is layered by Communism.  It is also a story about mothers and daughters and their intergenerational conflicts, about storytelling and voices, and about self and identity.
  • Compare the cultural conflicts and cultural identity issues that Chernin addresses with the treatment of those in Kingston’s autobiography.  What similar threads do you find?  How might we explain the differences?
  • Compare Rose Chernin’s commitment to Communism with Meridian Hill’s commitment to the Movement.  How do these shape the focus and the outcome of the story?
  • How does Chernin set up the book in “The Proposal”?  Why does she structure the book as a series of stories that her mother told, alternating with present-day moments offered from Kim’s perspective?
  • Why do women tell stories about their mothers in order to have themselves understood?

Further reading:

  • Anzia Yezierska, “The Fat of the Land” (1920), Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, eds., Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, pp. 1423-1442.  (reserve
  • Tillie Olsen, “I Stand Here Ironing” (1953-4), “Tell me a Riddle” (1961), in Olsen, Tell me a Riddle (1976), or in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, eds., Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, 1788-1820.  (reserve